Time for some controversy

I haven’t written anything controversial in a long time.   (OK, long time to me means a couple of weeks.)  Shall we see how controversial the following topic is?

Your disaster recovery plan is not finished.  Indeed, it is never complete.

Whether you are looking at a disaster recovery plan for a department, the IT shop, the ministry or even the city, your disaster recovery plan (DRP) is probably incomplete or missing huge chunks of material.  I mean, let’s face it, the DRP is based on a couple of assumptions (maybe a dozen or more) that need to line up perfectly in order for the plan to work.  It is far, far easier to put a plan in place to deal with a complete disaster than it is to deal with  a minor disaster.  And, as our environments are constantly changing and our processes constantly evolving, the DRP may be out of date by the time the last person has reviewed it.  Everything done is based on a point in time.  Is that mentioned in the DRP?

While people concentrate on what steps need to be accomplished to restore services, I’m wondering if we are approaching this whole idea from the wrong direction.  While knowing that to restore service to application xxx it is important that server yyy be recovered as well as database zzz is important, perhaps the most important piece is how the organization continues to function in the event that certain people in certain roles are lost.  You could spend a lot of time getting application xxx up and running, but if there are no users of the application then what is the point? 

If your organization is set up so that all decisions go through one or two people, what if those people aren’t there?  If a sinkhole opened up and swallowed <insert building of your choice here> would you be able to function?  In the event of a disaster what additional authority is suddenly pushed down/up in order for thing to continue to function?  Sure, a Business Continuity Plan has some of this in it, but is there enough?

To be honest, even if there were no disaster recovery plans in place for any of our applications, we could get things up and running.  The DRP documents for the applications allow us to do it faster, but still depend on the structure of the organization to exist.  If that structure did not exist?  Well, if the people still existed then we could still bring all of the applications back.

How do people learn?

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world about human memory.  To be more precise short term versus long term memory.  I read one article that said short tem memory was only good for about 10 seconds and then it went into long term memory.  Another article said that short term memory was good for about 45 minutes and then it went into long term memory.  They all seemed to agree on the fact that for the vast majority of people, what goes into long term memory is only a subset of what goes into short term memory.  But what subset?

Do you know why phone numbers are seven digits long?  Well, they did studies to determine memory limits and discovered that seven digits seemed to be the sweet spot.  If you added a word it lowered it to the word and five digits.  (Ex. 555-1212 vs.”Pennsylvania  6-5000″)  To me this isn’t short term memory, more of a memory cache.

I’m thinking there are really three types of memory:  short term cache, short term memory and long term memory.  (Hey, if you get a PhD out of this let me know.)  The cache memory we use for really, really short term things, like someone telling us a phone number that we need in order to dial.  It stays in memory long enough for us to dial it but then disappears.  Short term memory is what you need when you get a phone call on the way home from work and someone tells you to pick up dinner on the way home or perhaps milk and bread.  You know, the usual stuff.  Long term memory is the stuff that you need to remember for longer periods of time, things like your phone number, your address and where you work.  Memory is also affected by how often it is accessed.  The more often we repeat something the more likely it is to go into short term memory from the cache and long term memory from short term memory.  Have you noticed that if someone gives you a phone number and you repeat it over and over again you are more likely to remember it?  Same concept.  By repeating the phone number you are reinforcing temporary neural pathways thus allowing the neurons to more easily from permanent pathways.  This in turn shifts that neural pathway from being cached to short term to long term.  (No idea if that is right, but it sure sounded like I knew what I was talking about.)
So how does this affect you?

When you are designing a web application you need to be able to present people with familiar patterns so that they can more easily memorize complex routes.  If your application uses a familiar metaphor it is exponentially easier to use because many of the “memories” needed to access and use the application are already burned into the brain.  It is a matter of creating a clone of an existing memory and making a small change.  That small change is easier to memorize than an entirely new path.  That is why applications that use familiar metaphors are easier to user, easier to follow and easier to learn, because the memories are already built in.  People are quite familiar with folders, so the folder metaphor works well for many people.

Here is the scary part, however, the metaphor needs to constantly evolve.  When I said that the folder metaphor works for many people, the younger you are the less likely you are to understand the folder metaphor because you are less likely to have encountered folders.  The Save icon for many applications is a floppy disk.  How many of you have floppy disks at home?  How many of you have a computer that can use a floppy disk?  The WIMP interface, popular for so many years, is being replaced, but I’m not 100% sure with what.  I do know, however, that it needs to be simple, easy to use and it needs to be built on existing memory patterns.  Whether it is the memory patterns of old people like me or young people like my daughter, that is yet to be decided.

The things you find

Oh, the things that you find when you click on links.  For instance:

  • LD50 – The dose of a toxin required to kill 50 percent of a tested population.  How did I find this out?  Well, the new Fiesta Chicken Wraps from McDonalds have an ingredient I had never seen before:  Natamycin.  This ingredient is the fermented result of bacteria normally found in soil and is used as an anti-fungal agent in foods.  This anti-fungal agent has an LD50 of 450 mg/kg in animal studies.
  • Bacon Number – The number of degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and the person in question.  The idea is that Kevin Bacon has worked with so many actors that if no actor in the business is more than six acquaintances away from Kevin Bacon.  Google can help you out if you add “bacon number” in front of the actors name, but it doesn’t always have a number for you.  For example, one of the leads in the television show “Beauty and the Beast” (2012) is Jay Ryan whose Bacon Number is 3:
    1. Jay Ryan worked with Kristen Kreuk in Beauty and the Beast
    2. Kristen Kreuk worked with Neve Campbell in Partition
    3. Neve Campbell worked with Kevin Bacon in Wild Things
  • A zarf is a holder for a coffee cup with a handle.  While everyone is familiar with these, it originally meant these.  (Yes, you have to click the links to figure out what I am saying.)
  • The other day my wife was talking about virga when I came across petrichor.  Yes, apparently the English language has a word that describes the scent of rain on dry earth.
  • Lacrimal canaliculi are those little pink nodules in the corner of your eye.
  • Wikipedia has a “Random Article” feature that takes you to a random page within their site.  Accessing the link a few times I got:

Sometimes it can be quite relaxing just to click on links and see where you end up.


Last year my family went on a cruise of the Eastern Caribbean.  Since we were already in Florida we thought we would spend a week at DisneyWorld as well.  While we we there my oldest daughter bought a large Stitch plush.  It was so large that in order to bring it back with us she had to stuff it in a large carry on bag.  Needless to say, Homeland Security had a good time searching the bag for other contraband.

Why does she like Stitch so much?  I’m not sure.  The thing that really sticks out for me, however, is the following quote from the Lilo and Stitch movie:

Ohana means family, family means nobody gets left behind. Or forgotten.

In one quote the writers managed to sum up part of what it means to be human.  Collectively we are all part of a giant tribe of people.  When someone goes missing there are people out searching for that individual and even though they don’t know them they feel compelled to help search.  When a building collapses there is a tremendous amount of effort into searching for survivors and then recovering the bodies.  There is a “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” located in many countries around the world.  There is an interconnectedness between people that extends beyond familial, cultural or national boundaries.  We cheer on our heroes because they are an extension of ourselves.  Their success is our success.  Their failures are ours. We encourage those who reach for the stars because we know that we ourselves would like to be doing just that.

There is a dark side, however, in that this same attitude can be twisted for harm.  While the vision of angry villagers swarming Dr. Frankensteins castle in order to kill the monster seem laughable, they are not far from the truth.  The same desire to help can be twisted into the desire for vengeance.  The passion for helping can easily be turned into a passion for revenge.

But that is what it means to be human:  we experience the ups and downs of life and move through them.  Sometimes we do it alone, but often we do it in the company of others.

I am very happy and proud to say that the group of people that I am moving through life with are a great group of people:  my family, my friends, my co-workers.  You are all part of my tribe and I thank you.


Justin Bieber

Wow, I never thought I would write a daily note about Justin Bieber, but here it is.   First off, let me state that I do not like Justin Bieber’s music.  Never have been a fan and will probably never be a fan.  None of my daughters (ages 11, 16, 18) like him either.

OK, with that out of the way, why do I want to talk about him?  Well, I’m using him as an example of the dichotomy present not only in public figures, but, in many respects, in all of us.  There are two versions of each of us, our inner “real” person and the outer “public” person.  Celebrities like Justin Bieber are under a lot more scrutiny than the average person.  They are photographed continually and every word they say is somehow broadcast to the world at large.  As our world has become increasing mobile and digital these photos and words are almost instantly available around the world.  Justin Bieber currently has the most Twitter follows (39,444,187 at last count) and has submitted over 22,200 updates.  What he says, in jest or anger, is read around the world.  Because of this close attention he has very little time to be the “real” Justin Bieber and as a result the pressure sometimes spills over into the public Justin and he does some really stupid things.

For most of us, however, the dichotomy is not as severe, nor do we need to maintain that “public” persona for as long.  We don’t have people listening to everything we do, nor do we have people being killed while trying to take our picture.  We can easily switch into and out of our public persona with little effort and many people do not even notice.  (For the record, if you ever see me start talking fast and acting like I’ve taken too much caffeine, that means I am nervous as heck and my public persona – the care free gregarious Don – has come out to play.)

The vast majority of us have that switching between real and public personas down to a fine art.  So much so that many of us do not even know that we are doing it.  My father was a very quiet, introverted individual, who could walk into a room and make friends with everyone there.  It seemed “natural”, but having grown up with him I realized that this was a major hurdle for him.  My Dad only needed to be that public persona for short periods of time so it had little to no effect on the real person behind the façade.  But in the case of those who live in the public spotlight the pressure must be a lot higher and a lot more prevalent as they are forced to subvert their own life in favour of the persona that everyone expects.

So, how many of you are “real” with your friends and how many of you just project a new persona and keep the real you inside?